By KURT MCVEY, May 2018
It’s reasonable to assume that time is valuable to Ulay, the internationally renowned, 74-year-old performance and conceptual art pioneer. This sentiment, along with the notion that too much of this man-made “Astro-mathematic” commodity would not be forfeited during a brief, magic-hour interview last Thursday in the lightly sun-bathed back office of Boers-Li Gallery, was put forth with an overflowing cup of journalistic humility.
“Our time,” Ulay graciously clarifies, as an artist of his caliber is wont to do.
Ulay (real name Frank Uwe Laysiepen), who is of course eternally tethered to fellow-famed performance artist and once lover, quarreler and collaborator Marina Abramović, is currently staging his first solo exhibition in New York since 1992 and his first at the Upper East Side’s relatively new Boers-Li. This is Renais sense, a title celebrated independent curator Maria Rus Bojan borrowed from the artist’s autobiographical, self-interrogatory collage series, which was featured in a 1974 solo show at Seriaal Gallery in Amsterdam and set the tone for performative gender (“crossing”) exploration in the arts.
So, why Renais sense? “To make sense of Renaissance,” Ulay explains, quietly and simply, before apologizing for his lost voice, a result of his “problem,” as he put it (there was no push for elaboration). Ulay did offer that before getting on a plane to head to New York for his opening, he had come directly from an extended stay at a European hospital.
But here we are again: Western civilization trying to make sense of Renaissance. Where Ulay previously explored the anima and animus (the unconscious male and female archetype, respectively) as well as his own “marginal” nature in Amsterdam in the early seventies, the art world now finds itself experiencing a post-modern watershed moment for marginalized voices, while, simultaneously, words and phrases such as “cognitive dissonance,” “alternative facts,” and “obstruction of justice” (to cite a few) darken and pollute the atmosphere outside of seemingly “woke” coastal echo chambers.
Outside of a larger push towards empathy, inclusion and understanding of non-binary individuals and the “other,” which is an inherently problematic term (like minorities), there is a larger cultural debate swirling over privacy and an ever-widening chasm between true human (physical/spiritual) interaction in lieu of digital social media engagement and a subsequent, pervasive Pavlovian despair currently drowning a vast portion of young people in an inescapable sunken place of depression and anxiety.
“It’s not good enough,” says Ulay, responding to the idea that we may soon be moving out of a post-modern, neo-dark age. “We have to push it further.”
And (some) young artists are pushing it; one could surmise or even hope. But in moving through Renais sense at Boers-Li Gallery, it becomes clear that a vast majority of contemporary works that bear a thematic or aesthetic kinship to Ulay’s efforts from his S’he series (1973-74), for instance, are in many ways the redundant, kid’s table version of a once truly subversive enterprise.
This isn’t an outward dismissal of current “Trans-centric” works, some are actually delving into new terrain, but in moving through the 2018 Frieze Art Fair (Boers-Li was showing several of Ulay’s “Auto-Polaroids”), it became clear that galleries and collectors are less interested in causing a stir or pushing the needle, as opposed to jumping on a fetishized bandwagon. Renais sense at Boers-Li is not only a validation of “the gallery,” but an indictment of “the fair” as a (too often) shallow expression of industry trends.
“Well, you know, I’m really from the pusher side,” says Ulay. “I’ve always been a pusherman. No really. From let’s say, 1970-on. I belonged to the non-aesthetic era; the bad guys who chose media, which was not accepted at all. In general, the art scene was still surfing on late modernism-beauty, aesthetics. And then I choose the worst media of course; performance, video, film, photography, and then turned the camera around towards me, making myself the questionable figure, with reason and with motivation. It was not easily accepted. Basically the whole thing was rejected as being subversive.”
The point is, in the contemporary art world, if this subject matter is accepted, which it should be, and this is what Renaissance is-the rocky road towards the mainstream acceptance of progressive ideals-shouldn’t we at least demand or call for an artistic evolution beyond what Ulay was doing back in the ‘70s?
“You speak of how art is being used today and I’m happy for it,” says Ulay. “Sometimes artists are not very rational or historical. In my case, if you see the loose leaflets (Loose Sheet Edition, (1974-75), what I printed on it, it seems to again be appropriate, but from the beginning I said, ‘Aesthetics, without ethics, are cosmetics.’ I proclaimed that in the mid ‘80s. People hated it.”
They probably still do. Forget about the idea of art being decorative, in the 2018 art world, we live in the age of “Political Cosmetics.” But rather than a social, political or cultural assimilation or absorption of the other into a shared human body and collective consciousness, “the other” has instead been licensed and deputized to demand “white” cis-gendered men and women, or the abstract status quo to shut up and sit down. This plays out across social media, sewing discord. Dictators, social media oligarchs and media in general love this. But maybe this is the point. Maybe division and increased polarization is somehow the road to connection, like some sort of socio-political Eros & Eschaton moment.
“Sometimes it’s wiser to actually cut the connection rather than trying with all efforts to reestablish or fix it,” says Ulay. “I’m more for, ‘Let’s cut the crap and think of something new, and really good with the experience, knowledge and support we have and let’s find a new common ground, then really go for it.’ ”
Ulay knows a thing or two about cutting a connection in order to reestablish something stronger. After twelve years of living and working together, Ulay and Marina Abramović staged their Great Wall Walk, which took much of the ‘80s to realize.
“Since we were a female/male couple, we were considering who would start where,” Ulay begins in soft little bursts. “[The Gobi] Desert is fire/man, the Yellow Sea; water/woman. From there we depart and meet in the middle. But then, how do we start? Back to back, walking apart? Maybe not. Then, we fix one spot in the topographic middle. We start walking from either side. Meet on that fixed point? Not a good idea. What if one person’s progress is greater than the other? Then what? The other has to wait for months to meet the other. No. We open it up. We meet when we meet. Not exactly the middle, but for us, the middle.”
The anima and animus were certainly at play again, now with another physical body, Marina’s. However, this idea of whose progress is greater than the other and exactly what “the middle” is, could also serve as metaphor for how “the other” is engaged with, and in the West at least, let’s call it, the “white male hetero capitalistic patriarchy.” Where the journey ends and begins remains to be seen. Hopefully it’s something akin to perhaps the greatest humanist moment in all performance art; Ulay’s surprise reunion with Marina during her 2010 MoMA retrospective, The Artist is Present.
“I was an honorary guest invited by the museum,” he recalls. “I walked through the exhibition, passed by, looked down, and saw Marina sitting at the table and thought, ‘That looks familiar.’ I went down. There were not too many people-some media. Sean Kelly (Marina’s long-time gallerist) grabbed me by my arm and said, ‘You’re next.’ I said, ‘Ok why not.’ I was not prepared. Marina was not prepared. Otherwise what happened wouldn’t have happened. The tears, the touching; the rest you know.”
Still conscious of the time-a concept which Ulay rightfully claims feels most relevant in an experiential capacity in the face of aging and suffering, and not when you’re sitting across from an astonishing artist and human for instance, the conversation dives once more into the senses, specifically, what sense or senses we use to dream.
“I cannot tell you, really, because I never remember my dreams and I’m happy with that,” says Ulay. “Dreams are tricky business. I don’t agree with many explanations about what dreams are.”
And what of the metaphorical variety? What of Martin Luther King Junior’s “dream” as it were, one where humans were to be judged on the content of their character (art) and the immediate and lasting impression they make, not the color of their skin, their preferred and performed gender, or their sexual or restroom preferences?
“It’s beautiful,” he says, pausing for a moment. “I’m sure he had a vision for a better world. My explanation for a dream is this: You can fast and be without solid food for 40 days, without liquid for four days, without air for four minutes, but you can only be without impressions for four seconds. Impressions are our finest food.” WM
Kurt McVey is a writer based in New York City.
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